Posts Tagged ‘ Atleti Fans ’

Morbo Minute–Back to Work

La Liga returned from the Winter Break and the goals were plentiful. Again no scoreless draws, with a crazy game at the Bernabeu, a thrashing at the Nou Camp, a dramatic turnaround at Los Carmenes (Granada) and three points for Depor under new manager Domingos Paciencia.

After Round 18’s results, a greater net has been cast around relegation candidates as six teams are within four points of each other at the bottom.  This aspect of the league will probably be the story of the season along Levante’s quest to return to Europe.

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FC Barcelona 4  Espanyol 0

Before we get talking about the game, (not much to say), glad to see that Alves and Alba found their razors over the festive period.  Cesc, however, was still doing the quasi-beard thing and I’m still looking for confirmation that he got a new tattoo on his elbow.

The first half was a feast of attacking play as Barca put their city rivals to the sword in under 30 minutes.  Los Pericos came out in a narrow 4-1-4-1 with Forlin shielding the backline.  The visitors conceded width allowing Iniesta to hang on Barca’s left hand fringe ready to attack.  Espanyol’s central players switched off and allowed Xavi to walk in and turn in Iniesta’s cross to open the game. From there, Pedro scored two (hopefully getting him back on track) before Messi converted a dodgy penalty.

After that, tactics and the result went out the window.  Espanyol had very little to offer and FCB tried for 40+ minutes to get Pedro his hat trick, which went unfulfilled due to two very tight offside calls.  The defeat was Aguirre’s first in charge of Espanyol and keeps them firmly in the relegation battle.  As for the Blaugrana, they continue their record setting season thus far.  Dropped points are on the horizon but for now they are out of sight.

Kxevin of Barcelona Football Blog worried about this match, identifying the possible ingredients for failure: holiday break, resurgent opponent with something to play for, rust.  In the end Barca overwhelmed their opponents, putting them under pressure from the first moment to the last.  The second half, as he rightly noted, was a testament to this team’s hunger and desire.  With the match all but over, every turnover was immediately challenged, Valdes kept a clean sheet with a big save and the search for another goal continued.  Kxevin encourages everyone to keep watching, to keep admiring, to keep appreciating.

Chalk on the Boots focused on the passing of Busquets and the movement of the Barca players in the demolition of Espanyol.  Iniesta and Fabregas interchanged on the left, supported by Alba, while Pedro cut in from the right, all the while Messi drifted around the field.  At its peak, the dynamism was breathtaking.  Add to this a poor effort from the opponent, which he also touched on, and you get Sunday’s scoreline.

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Podcast, Articles, and Kits

Inside Spanish Football produced a winter break podcast, which broke down the season month by month.  Then the panel shared their moments of the season thus far.  Definitely worth a listen as it put the opening months in perspective and set the stage for the rest of the season.

Phil Ball returned to Spain just in time to stop by the pub for Real Sociedad’s visit to the Bernabeu.  Mourinho went with Adan again only for the young keeper to be sent off and replaced by Saint Iker.  Prieto’s hat-trick was not enough as the hosts survived with a makeshift defense (Arbeloa, Varane, Carvalho and Essien) and playing with 10 men for 80+ minutes.

I was able to catch the last nine minutes plus injury time so I missed all off the goals.  Prieto’s finishes were nice but a lot of attention was given to Ronaldo’s free kick.  It was well struck but the goalkeeper really should have done better.  Any touch by Bravo and the shot would have been saved.

Los Merengues gained two points on Atleti to cut the gap to five, but alarm bells must be going off in the defense.  Real Madrid has given up 20 goals this season, conceding 10 in last four games.  They now turn their focus to the return Copa match against Celta.  Down 2-1, Real Madrid will need to put their internal conflicts behind them in order to progress.

Sid Lowe also examined the Real Madrid/Real Sociedad game for his weekly column, noting the special circumstances with which Iker Casillas arrived on the scene over 10 years ago: coming on as substitute in the European Cup Final and taking over for Canizares before the World Cup after the Valencia keeper injured himself just before the tournament.  Since then Saint Iker has been an institution and Mourinho has been playing with fire by demoting him to the bench, and the Special One looks to burn all of his bridges before exiting the capital.

Kaushik took over for Madridista Mac at Real Madrid Football Blog, lauding the midfield performance of Alonso and Khedira and giving special praise to CR7, who was captain for the match.  This game also saw the return of Higuain, giving Los Blancos much need depth as they fight on three fronts.

For the other side of the capital, Martin Rosenow recapped the game for Atletico Fans and saw Los Colchoneros give up a late equalizer away to Mallorca.  The visitors were without Miranda, Turan and Falcao, and manager Diego Simeone was pleased with his team’s performance, which including fine efforts from Diego Costa, Koke, Tiago and goalscorer Raul Garcia.  Atleti should progress in the Copa and then get back at it against Zaragoza on the weekend.

Tim Stannard commented on the return of La Liga for Football365.  Besides Barca’s destruction and Real’s crazy victory, he looked at Atleti’s possible prospects next season without Falcao and Turan and Betis’ continued success before concluding with Depor’s vital three points.

Garreth Nunn did a La Liga Top 11 for 2012 for Forza Futbol, with one small tweak—no Real Madrid or FC Barcelona players.  He has a much better grasp of the league than I do, so his picks made sense to me.  Imagine his proposed midfield—Joaquin, Isco, Benat and Turan. Wow!  I would have gone with Leo Baptistao up top instead of Vela but not sure how the young Brazilian striker did in the second of half of the 2011/12 campaign.

Peter Alegi turned me on to Spanish Football Tales, a blog that looks at snippets from the history of the Spanish league.  I read a post called the Tenerife Leagues, which saw Real Madrid surrender the league title to FC Barcelona two seasons (91/92 and 92/93) in a row against Tenerife in the most dramatic circumstances.  Nice slice of history and shows how narrow the margins of victory were for Cruyff’s Dream Team.

A Football Report released their best of football writing of 2012, broken into the following categories: Most Compelling, Most Creative, Best Research, and Best Storytelling.  The list is overwhelming and not sure when I’ll find time to go through it, but I clicked on Brian Phillips’ eulogy for Pep Guardiola from last spring as he examined the “cocoon of silence” created in a world of noise and hype and tension.  Not only did Pep fashion a team that was pleasing to the eye, but the players performed with a joy and a spirit that was captivating.  Eventually Mourinho came in and upset the balance, yet for a short period the Blaugrana were the greatest show on Earth and under Tito Vilanova they are returning to those levels.

Many times I have stressed that this cycle will end and hopefully everyone can enjoy this moment now instead of waiting for time to pass and being forced to remember, to put it back together.  It’s happening, right now. We are in the midst of a glorious epoch in footballing history.  Take a second to let it wash over you because it will be gone soon enough.

Couple of kit related items:

Tom Conn reported on Inside Spanish Football that Atletico have finally secured a shirt sponsor—Chinese communications brand, Huawei.  The company has partnered with the club in the past but now look to go full time.  Currently Los Colchoneros have Azerbaijan: Land of Fire across their chest.

According to Football Fashion, Celta Vigo will be changing kit manufacturer’s next season, switching from Li-Ning to adidas.  The brand with the three stripes is already getting a jump on proceedings and released a special kit that the club will wear against Real Madrid during the second leg of the Copa del Rey.

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Morbo Minute–Who’s Finishing Second?

Larry Bird arrogantly asked the locker room before 1988 NBA Three Point Contest–Who’s finishing second? Barcelona can simply look at the table after 16 matches and ask the same question.  Round 16 started slowly and was fairly muted on Monday in terms of goals, but in the middle were two fascinating games—Real Madrid v Espanyol and FC Barcelona v Atletico Madrid—which produced drama and astonishing goals.  More on that shortly.

Thus far a couple of tiers have emerged in the table: Barca alone at the top, with the Madrid teams below them; then the contenders for fourth including Malaga, Betis, Levante and Getafe; the middle of the table sees seven teams separated by three points from 8th to 14th; finally there is the relegation zone with six teams under threat.   One more round before the holidays could change all that, but the teams are at the bottom are in real danger, with goals at a premium.

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Sevilla 0  Malaga 2

John Pelini analyzed Malaga’s tactics through the first half of season for El Centrocampista.  Los Boquerones have been lining up in a 4-2-3-1 with full backs supporting the attack from wide positions.  Two holding midfielders control the central part of the field and supply the ball to a fluid attacking group that interchanges positions and likes to combine through the final third.  They have been able to turn some of their dominance into goals and results this season as they have progressed to the knockout stage of the Champions League and headed into the Sevilla match tied with Betis in fourth place.

I anticipated this contest as Sevilla needed three points to keep pushing up the table while Malaga looked to consolidate fourth place.  The first half was lacking in excitement, even with the hosts’ energetic start.  Negredo hit the post early and was a strong physical presence up top against Welington and Demichelis (no place for Onyewu, even on the bench).  Navas was active but had a hard time getting on the ball.  Defensively, the Rojiblancos were organized as they tried to keep track of the varied attack from the visitors.

As for Malaga, they were able to bring a little balance back to the match but lacked thrust in the final third. The attacking players interchanged positions in an attempt to create spaces and mismatches but Joaquin did not see much of the ball and Santa Cruz lacked the activity to cause much trouble.  How does RSC fit into this team?  Malaga don’t cross for him, preferring to keep the ball on the ground, and he doesn’t seem to show for the ball.  RSC was always a half step behind and had two chances in the match that a poacher or striker in a rich vein of form would have finished off. Anyway, Los Boquerones struggled to switch the point of attack from right to left, leaving Eliseu forlorn figure in the left hand channel.  The back line was strong after the opening scare as Negredo’s influence faded.

Demichelis opened the scoring on 48th minute as his hopeful header floated into the far post to give the visitors the lead. The method of the goal was surprising, because up until that point set pieces had rarely threatened the hosts’ goal. The corner kick appeared to be slightly overhit but the Argentinean center back somehow scored. Later Willy made a hash of cross and Rakitic went down as Camacho tried to clear.  Not sure if it was a penalty.  Maybe on a different day.

Malaga finally got separation on 70 minutes as Joaquin made a lung bursting run through the middle and was awkwardly taken down by Fazio, who earned a red card and a penalty for the opponents.  The move was set up by RSC’s run wide (an example of what I would like to see) and then the Spanish winger filled space down the middle.  Eliseu (surprise choice) stepped up and buried it, giving the visitors a commanding 2-0 lead with 20 minutes to go. Saviola immediately came on for Joaquin who had worked his socks off.  The game tailed off and Malaga are in fourth, ahead of Betis on goal difference, while Sevilla are 13th, now behind Bilbao, who are finding points.  Expected a better match, or at least a better performance from Sevilla.

Paul Wilkes analyzed the game for La Liga UK.  In the end, Sevilla paid the price for squandering the chances of the first half.  Michel’s double substitution early in the second half was blunted as Rakitic went off injured and Fazio was sent off, leaving the manager with no additional subs to get back into the match.  One thing Paul noticed was Demichelis moving into a defensive mid position in the second half.  To be honest I missed that.  Pellegrini’s men withstood an early battering and managed to capitalize on their few opportunities to secure three points on the road.

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FC Barcelona 4  Atletico Madrid 1

As Morrissey says, stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.  Opponent gives FCB fits for a while but eventually capitulates.  Atleti played a brilliant first half, toning down the physical approach used in the derby.  They added a layer of intelligent and swift counterattacks, which saw them isolate mismatches between the forwards and the Blaugrana rearguard.

Playing a narrow, compact 4-4-2, they frustrated Barca for over thirty minutes, with the hosts barely getting a sniff of goal while El Tigre got closer and closer.  Los Colchoneros took a deserved lead but Adriano pegged the visitors back with a stunning effort and proved his worth yet again.  In a team full of stars, the Brazilian has scored vital goal (six this season, including the solitary goal against Valencia), played all across the back and provided energy and width and competence in every match.  Busquets’ goal was so composed it makes you wonder what he can’t do. . . besides chase down Falcao on a breakaway.  (Sidenote: again Barca has gone with direct corners, which resulted in another goal.  Will be interesting to see if they use that tacitc in the knockout rounds of Europe where they will encounter bigger, stronger teams.)  That goal turned the match as FCB came out full of confidence in the second half and proceeded to pass Atleti into submission.  Messi’s sumptuous finish finally gave the cules some breathing room and from there it was something of an exhibition.

Atleti were second best, and that’s because they are the third best team in the league.  Maybe if Falcao had been more clinical in the opening exchanges, the game might have gone differently.  But he didn’t.  They are worthy of the “best of the rest” this season, a spot occupied lately by Valencia, but they simply can’t compete.  Starved of the oxygen needed to burn against a great team, the legs finally went as they couldn’t tackle what they couldn’t catch and couldn’t attack without having the ball.

I simply hope that FCB win the lot.  The league is over.  Barring a catastrophic injury to Messi, this team will cross the line early and regain one of their crowns.  The question remains as to whether they can retain the Copa and reclaim the Champions League.

Kxevin posted on Barca’s victory for Barcelona Football Blog while nursing an ankle injury, which was a result of celebrating Adriano’s golazo.  He commented that Atleti did everything they had to yet were still down 2-1 at halftime.  Why?  He sees the difference in the Blaugrana this year thusly:

Last season, you could give Guardiola’s Barça the ball, like a plaything with which to amuse a child. They would pass it around, make wondrous things with it, but you would mostly be okay as long as you retained your shape and didn’t do anything silly. Give Vilanova’s Barça the ball, and it will kill you, because it is impatient. It shoots from distance, it rushes the box, it eschews the magic of tika-taka for one dude saying to the others, “Watch this!” And the longer Vilanova’s Barça has the ball, the more likely it will kill you with a moment of magic.

He does remain readers that Barca hasn’t won anything yet but if the team continues their wondrous passing and maintains a ruthless attitude, it’s only a matter of time.

Martin Rosenow, writing for Atleti Fans, saw Simeone’s troops tease fans before succumbing to a deeper and more clinical Barcelona team.  Still as Martin points out, having a chance to finish with 40 points before Christmas as opposed to the 19 last year is nothing to gripe about

Zonal Marking saw Simeone’s 4-4-1-1 keep a relatively passive Barca at bay and made the point that perhaps Atleti scored “too early” and FCB had time and motivation to move through the gears.  Looking at Barca’s goals– the first goal was long-distance scorcher, the second was from a set-piece and the fourth from an inexplicable defensive mistake—there may be a case that the visitors could have a better shot at the Calderon in May.

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Articles

I caught the second half of 2-2 draw between Real Madrid and Espanyol at the Bernabeu.  Ireland 26 of Managing Madrid saw the hosts dominate large portions of the match but still share the points.  Callejon started up top with CR7, Modric and Ozil behind him, but Mourinho brought in di Maria at the start of the second half as Los Blancos reverted to a more traditional line up.  Madrid battered Espanyol for most of the second stanza but failed to capitalize after Coentrao’s go ahead goal.  I thought Ozil had a fantastic second 45 minutes, as he drifted from the middle to the right, which created space for others to run into.

Mando (The Ball is Flat) saw Los Pericos grab a late point at the Bernabeu as Real Madrid conceded on yet another set piece.  He makes the point that Mourinho doesn’t quite have the loyalty that he had at his former teams, and while I agree to a certain extent, Chelsea got off to a slow start during the 2007/08 season, which saw Abramovich get rid of the Special One.  Mourinho’s schtick wears thin with everyone, and this will definitely be his last season in the capital.  The question now is: will he make it to the end of the season?  As for Espanyol, another point towards safety for Aguirre’s men.

Sid Lowe reported on fantastic match that saw Barca all but seal the league as it was the tiger versus the flea, and the flea prevailed again.  Barca continue to make the amazing ordinary—controlling games with metronomic passing and scoring astonishing goals.  The result leaves Real Madrid clutching at the cups as Mourinho searches for La Decima to add to his legacy before exiting for the next challenge.

Phil Ball focused his attention on the game between Mallorca and Bilbao, which saw the hosts slump to another defeat.  Phil put Los Bermellones’ run in perspective: Mallorca have now gone 11 league games without a win (two points from 33), plus three cup matches either drawn or lost. Aduriz, a former Mallorca player, scored the goal against Caparros, former Bilbao boss, as these two teams appear to be headed in different directions.

Frank Tigani drilled down into Mallorca’s poor run for Football Espana.  The goals of Tomer Hemed have dried up, leaving Mallorca with no punch as goals are shipped at the other end.  14 goals in 16 matches have seen them slip into the relegation zone, and Caparros has gone from a possible contract extension to the chopping block.  The islanders have a fight on their hands entering the New Year.

Looking ahead to the January transfer window, Francesc discussed Barca’s current strategy—promote from within—for ESPN FC.  Still feel they lack depth at center back unless they plan to play Bartra more in the second half of the season.  Further injuries to Pique and Puyol will put a possible dream season at risk.  Other than that, Xavi and Tello have signed until the 2016, which does two things: for Xavi, it keeps the midfield maestro part of the club to educate his successors; for Tello it gives the predators hovering around the player a number from which to negotiate.  The young forward is in a tough situation.  FCB will probably continue to play Sanchez because of the money spent, which reduces Tello’s chances for minutes.  Add to that the Villa factor and it’s hard to see how Tello gets on the field.  If Villa is unhappy, ship him off and get Tello on the field and by this time in 2013, FCB should make a decision.

Morbo Minute–Atleti Show Their Stripes

Another round, another Barcelona victory.  That story line can be put to bed until March when we’ll see if fatigue or a push from Real Madrid or focus on European glory slows the Blaugrana juggernaut.  As for the rest of La Primera, the panel at Inside Spanish Football pod named Cristiano Ronaldo their Player of the Week, as he scored their Goal of the Week and was the only bright spot in another wise dour Madrid Derby.  They also touched on Valencia not treating their manager, a former player during a very successful time for the club, with respect before moving on Getafe’s third straight victory and other news and notes.  Don’t want to forget to mention Joel Campbell’s cracking goal for Betis as Los Verdiblancos built on their victory over Real Madrid and are now in fourth.  Plus Malaga’s third kit made an appearance in their loss to Getafe.  Electric lime might not be the proper identification, but whatever the color, not attractive.

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FC Barcelona 5  Athletic Bilbao 1

Los Leones came into the match after a rescheduled Europa League game in midweek so I was concerned about their energy levels, but the team started well and maintained a great deal of composure despite being without Muniain.  Unfortunately, once the visitors got over midfield, everything broke down, with Aduriz and Ander having very poor games, losing their footing and constantly turning the ball over.

In time, the hosts simply overwhelmed Athletic pushing players forward, interchanging positions and pressuring them all over the pitch.  Once FCB broke through, off a direct corner of all things, there was only one result.  The Blaugrana immediately scored another goal and created wonderful chances throughout the half, culminating in a simply stunning goal from Adriano with the last kick of the first period.

The second half saw Llorente come on for Aduriz but the big forward had even less of an impact on the game, as Athletic tired, leading to less pressure and organization and poor interplay from all players.  FCB took it down a gear but still scored twice.  Iniesta laid off a skillful pass for Fabregas; Ibai scored a fine consolation goal; and Messi added his second of the night to complete the scoring.

A couple of player notes.

  • Thought Iniesta started poorly but eventually was unplayable.  What he can do in tight spaces is beyond comprehension.
  • Ramalho was had a ‘mare at right back.  Chased shadows and lost possession for a majority of the game.
  • Adriano played on his opposite side.  Some debate on why he started instead of Montoya, but he made a great run for his goal and showed tremendous energy throughout the match. Definite glue guy for the team.

With Atleti’s loss, the Blaugrana are now six points clear at the top.  A result against Los Colchoneros just before the winter break and FCB can start looking at trying to retain their Copa del Rey title as well as regaining the Champions League.

Spoiled.  Simply put that is what Barca fans are at the moment says Kxevin from Barcelona Football Blog.  The Blaugrana are now on top of the league in record breaking fashion, a league that has decided to stop fearing FCB and tried to take the game to them.  Action, reaction.  Repeat.  In this case, Tito Vilanova has made the team more direct, less patient and focused on results.  One thing that Pep’s teams did not do in the last season or two was step on the throat.  This current squad rips the throat, dismembers the opponent and revels in the bloodbath.  A couple of nervy moments at the beginning of the season have given way to a run of form reminiscent of the amazing run of the 2010/11 campaign with win after win.  Yet Real Madrid still came back.  Tito’s real test will be rotating the squad to maintain the results and the awe inspiring play while keeping a little in reserve for the trophy with the big ears.  Let’s see where things in stand heading into March. Fans are still spoiled though.  And it won’t last forever.

(Tangent.  This goes for FCB and Manchester United.  Once Fergie goes at Old Trafford, United will begin the slow descent into mediocrity.  Gone will be Father Figure, the manager who strikes terror in everyone involved, the veteran hand who has seen everything, and the gaffer who can instill confidence and fear in equal measure in his players.  So with Barca.  The Golden Generations can’t last forever.  Time is almost up for Puyol and Xavi, with Villa and Iniesta to follow.  Then you have the Messi/Pique/Fabregas group.  The Argentinian will be the focus and that may be the problem.  Without a strong supporting cast his influence can be reduced.  Argentina National Team anyone?  Then you have Pedro, Montoya, Busquets and Thiago.  Can that group reach the heights of their predecessors?  Can they do it with the veterans to lead them? Can they do without heavy investment from the squad?  Barca has always hit a lull before remerging.  Van Gaal gave way to a barren period before Rijkaard led them to glory.  But the Dutchman failed to retain the titles of 2006 and eventually gave way to Pep and a simply historic period of success that we have not seen the end of.  But it will end.  Always has, always will be.  What is the next chapter?

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Real Madrid 2  Atletico Madrid 0

What a disappointment.  Atleti came into this match with their best chance in a long time of ending the hoodoo and Simeone sent out his troops with one thought—foul the shit of the Los Blancos.  I understand the approach, get into Real’s head, get them off their game and sneak in a goal, but Atleti did very little in the way of attacking.  With only four or five shots (that might be generous) the visitors focused on the physical attack, with Diego Costa leading the way.  If this had been an NBA game, he would have fouled out early, but at least he came to play, not backing down from the hosts and trying to drive forward.  Falcao channeled his inner Rivaldo after the Sergio Ramos love tap.  Nothing there.  You’re a big, strong lad.  Get on with it.

Mourinho put out a full strength eleven, and while Ozil was ok, maybe a little better than his 45 minutes against Real Betis, I felt that Di Maria had some nice individual moments but maybe he could have combined better. After minor flare ups from Pepe and Sergio Ramos due to Atleti’s robust style, the defenders were firmly in control.  The Special One stated that he didn’t know his team earlier in the season.  Yet he continues to roll out the same players. Seems like he should make changes to startle the underperformers into doing a little more.

Cristiano’s goal was spectacular.  I can’t remember the last time he scored one like that, but it reminded me of the goal he scored for United against Pompey, maybe 2008 or 2009.   Simply unstoppable.  Real Madrid found their rhythm in the second half, with nice interchanges in the final third, which kept the visitors pinned back.

The match was reminiscent of the Barcelona and Real Madrid battles early in Pep’s reign, in which Real would just foul and foul and foul, hoping to stop FCB by brute force rather than by organization, anticipation and tactics.  In the same way, Atleti tried to outmuscle rather than out play Real.  Maybe if they had tried to play straight up, their reward might have been a Real Madrid Manita, but for all the hype and expectation, this match was a huge let down.

One last note, going back through the lineups, I saw Carvalho was on the bench.  I didn’t even know he was still on the squad.

Managing Madrid saw Ronaldo open the scoring which forced Atleti out of their shell and from there Ozil took full advantage.  These two players have had recent success against their crosstown rivals and again they rose to the occasion.

Martin Rosenow reviewed the damage for Atleti Fans.  Ronaldo’s goal took the wind of Los Colcheneros and with Luis Felipe out due to late injury, the team never got going. Nine straight derby losses.  Ouch.  However, still firmly in second and well above the chasing pack for third.  If Atleti can hold on to Falcao, they will have a small window to replace Valencia as the best of the rest.  However if the Colombian goes, I fear they will fall away again.  We’ll see.

Atleti is one of many clubs in La Liga struggling to find a shirt sponsor.  Their last set sponsor was Kia, which cut ties in 2011, so I was surprised to see something across the chests of the red and white jerseys.  Based on a post at Atleti Fans, the club signed an agreement with the Republic of Azerbaijan. Not sure what Land of Fire on but if the club is getting money, then more power to them.

Finally, Chalk on the Boots analyzed the game, correctly stating that the match was “instantly forgettable” with 42 fouls and very little in terms of attacking fluency.  He identified a couple of key factors to the match: Ozil’s lack of space against a compact Atleti side (until the game opened up in the second half); Cata Diaz, usually a centerback, played at left back, which sacrificed an element of attack; and a lack of wide service for Falcao and Costa.

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Articles

Sid Lowe focused on Pellegrino’s dismissal in his weekly column.  After standing by several coaches in the past, President Manolo Llorente fired his manager as the fans have begun to turn on him.  Backed by the players, there are elements of fear and lack of long term planning in this decision and now it is up to Valverde to improve their league position while contending in the Copa and the Champions League.

La Liga Loca also discussed Pellegrino’s termination on Football365.  As everyone said at the end of last season when Emery was let go, be careful what you wish far.  Despite relative success, Emery was let go, and, after the club failed to get AVB, Llorente turned to Pellegrino.  The Argentinean didn’t last long and now the club is faced with financial and managerial instability.

Phil Ball wondered how the seemingly laid back Tito Vilanova gets the Blaugrana to press and attack and bamboozle opponents.  Their record start has been inspired by a historic individual performance and an indefatigable team effort.  He then moved to the Madrid Derby, where Simeone showed a possible lack of tactical nous.  Phil also touched on the cult of Mourinho as his window of influence and abrasiveness is closing.  He concluded with Pellegrino’s firing and the reemergence of Javier Aguirre at Espanyol.

Listened to an old Off the Ball pod (11/21) with Graham Hunter, in which he discussed CR7’s future at Real Madrid.  The winger’s contract is running out and this prompted a conversation about whether the club should sell the Portuguese player (could go to City or PSG) and possibly buy Neymar.  The players are not like for like in terms of footballing ability but there is something to be said in terms of star power.

Staying with CR7, Jonathan Wilson made the argument in the Guardian that Ronaldo is the reason that Real Madrid won’t win La Decima.  While he concedes the former Manchester United’s great physical skills, he notes some glaring weaknesses in his game that could keep him from being part of a great team.  Isolated as defensive laxity, Wilson notes that full backs create disadvantages for the rest of Ronaldo’s teammates causing undue pressure and goals. On Off the Ball last week Wilson went as far to say that Ronaldo would not be in his starting eleven because “he doesn’t know how to play football.”  His premise is that systems and groups win rather than one player who demands the ball, demands the players and demands the accolades.  Definitely a provocative argument, especially in a world that sees the current landscape as Messi v Ronaldo.

Finally, My Golden Great is a series that Football Espana is developing, where the site looks back into the history of the league to identify wonderful players of years past.  Recently Sam Marsden picked out Rivaldo’s year just before the end of the millennium.  Right in my wheelhouse, as this was the time when I started following FCB and La Liga with some regularity.  I remembered his amazing performances against United in the 1998/99 Champions League Group Stage and some phenomenal goals in the following campaign, both home and abroad.  The Brazilian ended up winning the 1999 Ballon d’Or award after a great year for club and country.  I was able to find his Barca goals from in and around that season.  As Tim Vickery always says, Rivaldo might be involved 50 times in a match.  48 times he’ll drive you crazy but the other two are simply amazing.

Morbo Minute–Bleeding Tiger, Fortunate Lions

Ten games in and the La Liga table is beginning to take shape.  Real Betis are the surprise package, sitting up in fourth behind the Big Two and Atleti.  Down at the bottom, Osasuna, who finished seventh last year, are rock bottom.  They are joined by Granada and Espanyol, with promoted Galician sides and Real Sociedad just above them.

Graham Hunter made some observations on the opening quarter of the season for ESPN FC.  He opened with concerns over the lack of hunger from Real Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, two teams that had success last year.  The Champions are back on track while the Copa finalists are struggling as the demands of Bielsa wear on them.  He then moved on to Barca, off to a great start despite the amounts of goals they are conceded.  If they tighten that up, Tito may match the success of Pep in his first season.  He wrapped up the column praising Pepe Mel’s leadership at Betis, Falcao’s scoring exploits for Atleti and Soldado’s efforts for Valencia.  Solid stuff and a nice wrap up of the storylines thus far.

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Valencia 2  Atletico Madrid 0

The Mestalla was not even full as Los Che welcomed Falcao and company, and Atleti suffered their first defeat of the season in a stop/start game with lots of niggly fouls.  Soldado opened the scoring with a goal reminiscent of Claudio Lopez in the Champions League all those years ago as he fired in a volley after a great ball from Rami.  Falcao proved to be a handful for the Valencian center backs with Rami having to resort to the dark arts on several occasions.  The Colombian barged into Ricardo Costa and no foul was given, at which point Pellegrino went absolutely nuts and was sent to the changing rooms after tossing a water bottle and berating the fourth official.

In the second half the fouls continued, the game seemingly a series of aerial challenges ranging from legal to borderline assault.  Ricardo Costa was sent off for a soft second yellow card, but Los Che saw out the match with substitute Nelson Valdez grabbing another goal.  Not sure that Valencia were worth the two goal advantage, and it was hard to even put a finger on a man of the match but there you are.

Couple of player notes:

For Valencia, Gago did not have a great match.  Poor challenges and too many turnovers for my liking.  Joao Pereira is a little baby.  He cried and went to ground if anyone was ever near him.  Very disappointed in his attitude.  As I tweeted during the match, unless Diego Alves has knee issues, he should not be wearing leggings.  He was another player who constantly faked injury.

For Atleti, Arda is fat.  Between him and Anderson of Manchester United, I’m not sure who is getting more calories.  Still clever but seems to lack burst.  He moved to central midfield when Emre left and Cristian Rodriguez came on.  Speaking of Emre, was he even on the field?  I guess he was as the Turk was subbed on 56’. Completely anonymous.  Adrian was fantastic.  Up for the match, he continually went one v one and had some delightful touches throughout the match.

SlickR at Club Valencia CF Blog felt the match was exciting (disagree with him there) and his player ratings were much more positive than I would have been.

Martin Rosenow reviewed the match for Atleti Fans, commenting on the referee’s decisions in a very physical match.  The team is still in a good position and Simeone was proud of them after the match.

Granada 1  Athletic Bilbao 2

After an energetic start, Granada fell behind after a weird call in the box (did the defender karate chop Arduriz’s throat?), which resulted in a yellow card for Diakhate and a PK conversion from the fouled party.  The summer transfer from Valencia scored again on 27’ after shrugging off a defender outside the penalty area and firing it into the far post.  Muniain was in offside position (standing right in front of goalkeeper) and not sure how he wasn’t called for that.  Despite not being that dangerous, the visitors, looking pretty sharp in their all black kits, went into halftime up 2-0.

The second half, which started with Bilbao goalkeeper Iraizoz running onto the field as play kicked off, saw pouring rain and a much sharper home side.  Unfortunately they were not wearing their finishing boots as two early chances went begging from El Arabi  and Brahimi.  Eventually El Arabi curled a grass cutter in from 20 yard, although the keeper should have done better.  For a long portion of the half Los Leones were totally pinned back, but Aduriz nearly extended the lead again on 58’ but his header crashed against the post.  This saw a spell in which Athletic was able to put the pressure back on the hosts and the game opened up.

Los Leones were not sharp in possession, especially in getting ball wide, and the team resorted to trying to find Aduriz up top.  Muniain had a hard time getting into the match and only became an influence as the match opened up.  The vertical ball was not working for Granada, and they did much better in quick combinations.  Torje had a fantastic match, giving the visitors problems, and had at least one and maybe two penalty shouts.  Fortunate three points for the visitors but Granada only have themselves to blame.  Lack of cutting edge in first half and lack of finishing in the second prevented them from getting anything from the match.  Now in real trouble at the bottom of the table.

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Round 10

Phil Ball dove into the numbers of La Liga, which led into a discussion about the youth policy of Real Madrid and the reserve team policy of the league as a whole.  He was on hand as Espanyol defeated Real Sociedad at the Anoeta (first away win in 11 months), and he also wondered if Malaga players will continue to perform without being paid, definitely an important figure.

Sid Lowe observed some of the weird happenings in Spanish football (Messi, CR7 and Falcao all not scoring; Essien scoring; and Rayo and Malaga winning away from home), before moving on to look at Valencia’s win over Atleti.  “A proper battle that got nasty without ever really getting nasty, where there were clashes but few confrontations.” Los Colcheneros lost for the first time since April.  Is this a bump in the road or their descent into a third place finish 20+ points behind the big two?

Madridista Mac recapped Madrid’s 4-0 win against Zaragoza for Real Madrid Football Blog, which featured Modric and Essien standing in for Alonso and Khedira respectively.  The midfield had a slight different look, with Modric more selfish and direct, but the results were the same.  Mac was concerned that the team switched off and knows that Dortmund will punish that lack of concentration.  As he commented last week, their participation gives Mourinho plenty of options moving forward.

Staying with Los Blancos, Tim Stannard asked the question for Football365: Why Won’t Mourinho Give Youth a Chance?  The club continues to splash the cash (Modric and Coentrao as recent examples) rather than building from within (read: FCB), and he lists several players playing at home and abroad who left the capital for more playing time.  The simple fact is that the club does not have a youth policy mentality, which is coupled with a manager who stays for a short time to get maximum results.  Mourinho is not in for the long haul, so that’s why Essien plays out of position at left back instead of a natural Castilla player.  The Special One wants trophies and a legacy, and with the club executives and fans urging him on, there is no need for blooding young players.  Furthermore, if they did hire a manager who focused on promoting Castilla players and results did not follow, guess what happens to that unfortunate soul?  The axe.

Speaking of youth, Oriol Romeu’s future was the subject of Richard Thorburn’s post for El Centrocampista.  The young Spaniard “has gone from being tipped for the top to being nothing more than a fringe player in a mere six months.”  Time will tell if he can recover and force his way into a crowded Chelsea midfield or whether he will have to move on to earn his trade.

Total Barca saw Celta Vigo go for it at the Nou Camp, and while the visitors left without any points, their efforts were much better than Rayo Vallecano (playing at home) the previous week.  Tito started with a very unusual lineup, going with Adriano, Mascherano, Busquets, and Alba in the back and Cesc in midfield, which meant there was no “traditional anchor”.  Maybe the coach is saving Song for midweek?  The attack created plenty of chances, with the first two goals of the real quality.  The third goal was offside but Alba took it well.  FCB are now clear at the top of the table heading to Scotland on Wednesday and Mallorca on the weekend.

Lev wrote a highly descriptive post for Barcelona Football Blog, weaving threads of emotion, match reporting and poetry together.  Praising the team’s heart, what the Blaugrana lack in defense they more than make up in attack, creating chance after chance after chance.  Celta came to play but in the end the quality of FCB was too much.

John Pelini broke down the last match on Sunday for El Centrocampista.  Sevilla hosted Levante in a scoreless draw as the visitors packed the center of pitch.  The hosts could not deliver crosses to trouble the strong center backs of Levante and were not able to move the ball quick enough laterally to trouble an organized side.  John did make mention of Sevilla substitute Diawarra who was able to add a spark for the Rojiblancos.

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Table

Barcelona 10 9 1 0 20 28
Atlético 10 8 1 1 11 25
Real Madrid 10 6 2 2 18 20
Betis 10 6 1 3 2 19
Málaga 10 5 3 2 7 18
Levante 10 5 2 3 -2 17
Sevilla 10 4 3 3 1 15
Valladolid 10 4 2 4 4 14
Valencia 10 4 2 4 1 14
Getafe 10 4 1 5 -4 13
Rayo 10 4 1 5 -10 13
R Zaragoza 10 4 0 6 -6 12
Mallorca 10 3 2 5 -5 11
Athletic 10 3 2 5 -6 11
Celta Vigo 10 3 1 6 -3 10
Deportivo 10 2 4 4 -5 10
R Sociedad 10 3 1 6 -5 10
Espanyol 10 2 3 5 -3 9
Granada 10 2 2 6 -8 8
Osasuna 10 1 2 7 -7 5

Morbo Minute–Contrast in Styles

Only one place to start this week.  I was overwhelmed by the coverage given to this game before and after.  Let’s just say I didn’t get to everything but here some notes on the game from people who actually know what they are talking about.

FC Barcelona 2  Real Madrid 2

There was plenty of pre-match coverage of the big match.  I tried to get as much of as I could, but in the end, I just wanted to see how the game would unfold.  A couple of posts that caught my eye.

Andreas Vou looked at the evolution of Sergio Busquets for Barcelona for Inside Spanish Football.  Busquets made his 201st appearance for Barca in El Clasico and has moved from the pivot to the third center back to the sweeper and back again, which has allowed the Blaugrana to constant tweak the formation and approach.  The quotes from players and coaches at the end are high praise indeed.

I’m sure Graham Hunter was a busy man in days before the game as he gave out his thoughts ahead of the match.  For Soccernet, he commented that the speed of Madrid is beginning to trouble Barcelona. Plus, As a unit the Spanish champions are more confident about their identity, their play and what to do if they fall behind against any rival.  He also posted some interesting tidbits for Paddy Power:

This first Clasico is weeks earlier than normal (more than two months earlier than last season) to allow the second league meeting to take place before the crucial moment in April. Then, both clubs want to be competing in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals but don’t want to be left looking like the cast of Dad’s Army (something which cost each of them dearly against Chelsea and Bayern Munich six months ago). 

That, in itself, tells you something about the degree to which the vast economic attraction of success in Europe is beginning to edge ahead of the absolute need for domestic supremacy.

For my thoughts on the game, you can read them here.  As for what was talked about after the game. . .

Albert Ferrer was on talkSPORT with Richard Keys and Andy Gray to talk about El Clasico and his time with FCB and Chelsea.  He was asked why Busquets did not play at center back and he flat out said that Busquets is too important to the way Barca play to put him back there.  Very interesting take.  He also mentioned that Real Madrid have caught the Blaugrana and can now attack FCB rather than just sit back.  He wrapped up his time recounting his rise through the club before his eventual move to the Blues of Chelsea.

Everyone at the bar was wondering what in the hell was cut into CR7’s hair.  Well Dirty Tackle presented this info:

According to Marca, Cristiano went to hairstylist brothers Jose and Miguel Siero Leal the day before the match and asked for “something different and groundbreaking.” This is how the brothers explain the hair doodle:

“He told us, as he had on many other occasions that he was looking for something different. We know him well and we had the idea of shaving a symbol that represents both peace and the calm a warrior experiences after battle. He agreed”, they said.

Yikes.

Sid Lowe waded through the political elements surrounding the game to get to several interesting points:

  • The match also disguised the fact that Barcelona have not reached their level, for a side that builds its moves with patience and precision it is striking that one goal came from a mistake by Pepe and the other from a 25-yard free-kick. Real constructed both their goals, Barcelona did not.  Hadn’t really thought about it that way but he’s absolutely right.
  • “They used to be here,” Mourinho said, gesturing with his hands. “And we were down here. Now, they’re still up here but so are we.”  So true.  Mourinho really has rebuilt this team that can stand toe to toe with Barca.
  • And of course Messi and Ronaldo, continuing their epic duel for supremacy in the league, on the continent and in the world.

Phil Ball was able to cram in comments on almost every single match of the round besides commenting on El Clasico.  Well played.  He’s not sold on Betis but may be drinking the Atleti Kool-Aid.  Good stuff as always.

Kxevin of Barcelona Football Blog felt that the heart of a champion was unveiled Sunday night as Barca overcame a determined opponent and injuries to secure at least a point.  Praising Busquets in particular, he saw a team find their rhythm and almost snag all three points in the biggest game in the world.  He tried to get into the minutiae of the game but kept coming back to the emotions that this game generated.

Passes flew, players flew, and for much of the time, both sets of players were so intent on playing the beautiful game as it was meant to be played, that they forgot to do all of the silly stuff, the flopping, the exaggeration and whining that have come to define the Classíc. Both sides played so quickly, attacked so savagely, moved the ball with such alacrity that it was a joy to watch, even as my heart was threatening to leap from my chest, such was the adrenaline. They are good. Make no mistake about it.

Madridista Mac of Real Madrid Football Blog is no longer afraid.  He is no longer afraid of the giant that is Barcelona because the team that he supports has a coach who has transformed the players into a fellow giant who can look their opponent in their eye and say, Let’s do this. He made some interesting points, namely that CR7 has become the man for the big occasion and that FCB may too Messi-reliant, especially in these big games.  Again, a post that doesn’t dwell just on tactics but on the ramifications both on and off the field for these two teams

For a couple of tactical breakdowns . . .

Chalk on the Boots wondered if the two sides were too conservative in his match recap.  For me, Barca yes, Real Madrid, no.  Mourinho has fashioned a team that absorbs and counters, regardless of opposition.  Against their biggest rivals, this provides a contrast in styles, which results in different permutations each time depending on other circumstances (injuries, cards, lineups, etc).  As for Barca, Tito was handcuffed by injuries. The FCB heat map crystallized what I was screaming at the TV during the match—no one in the box.  For all their possession and pressure on Madrid, there was rarely anyone attacking crosses or distracting Casillas.

Michael Cox of Zonal Marking focused on the position of Iniesta and Barca’s lack of penetration for his post match comments.  With Iniesta drifting centrally, it added a body to an already crowded area and if Alba is not able to overlap, then that side is lost from an attacking perspective.  Michael also echoed the sentiment that Barca is allowed to play in front of Real Madrid as opposed to driving at them.  It will be interesting to see if Villa being at close to full fitness in the spring changes the dynamics of this match.

More praise for Busquets . . .

Lee Roden echoed Andreas’ comments regarding Busquets in his post-match contribution to talkSPORT.  Calling the Spaniard a “rivet” for the Blaugrana, Lee looked at several English teams that could do with this sort of player.  Despite his play acting and occasional loose pass, I hope he retires at the Nou Camp.

And of course there was the political context to the proceedings. . .

Jimmy Burns examined the political overtones of the match, including the mosaic at 17:14.  He identified some of the key players in the desire for independence as the club and the region try to determine their future.  Again, I don’t pretend to understand it all but it is fascinating to watch from afar.

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Articles and Podcasts

The all consuming fire of the El Clasico blinded people to another key game on the weekend—Atletico Madrid v Malaga.  Falcao scored again as Atleti won 2-1 to keep pace with the Blaugrana and give themselves some breathing room from the chasing pack. At the bottom, Espanyol remain winless and Osasuna crashed back to earth and have only four points thus far.

Martin at Atleti Fans looked at the standings and saw Los Colchoneros joint top of the table with Barcelona after a last minute win against Malaga.  He wonders if they can keep up for the entire season but the performance of the squad, Emre and Luis Filipe in particular, was encouraging.

Liam profiled Abdel Barrada of Getafe for Forza Futbol, with the Moroccan generating interest both at home and abroad, namely in England.  I have only seen glimpses of him and look forward to seeing more of him throughout the season.  (Of course he was sent off last week in the win against Real Zaragoza.)

Phil Ball was on the Forza Futbol pod ahead of El Clasico to look at the big game as well as some other story lines in La Liga thus far, including the two Basque teams, Atleti’s title challenge and the problems at Espanyol.

To wrap everything up, the panel at Inside Spanish Football looked at El Clasico as well as some of the key matches of the round.  They felt it wasn’t the best El Clasico but at least everyone is talking about the game for a chance.  There was some discussion about whether Montoya should replace Alves, which could be a storyline for the rest of the season.  Of course there was the Ozil v Modric conversation.  The guys moved on to the other big game between Atleti and Malaga.  Michael Bell, the resident Malaga expert, felt that Los Boquerones can challenge for third.  As for Atletico, Simeone has the team doing well and time will tell if they can replace Valencia as the best of the rest.  Speaking of Valencia, Los Che are in real trouble, with Soldado a shadow of himself from last year.  Finally the panel spent some chatting about Athletic Bilbao.  The vibe is not good and there is some confusion and concern about why Llorente is only making substitute appearances.

Morbo Minute–Sevilla Surrender

Have to say that the La Liga season has been very compelling in the early stages, with a couple of surprise teams at the top (Mallorca and Valladolid) and lots of goals each weekend.

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Sevilla 2  FC Barcelona 3

After watching three EPL games, I picked up my son and headed to the pub for one more game.  Between getting him fed, keeping him occupied and peeking at the MSU/OSU football game, I didn’t take any notes.  Then I got home and got caught up in family activities.  The following day was church stuff and a soccer game and I didn’t even write down thoughts about the game.  48 hours I still can’t believe the Blaugrana won that match.

FCB played well but there is definite room for improvement.  Though Pedro was excellent again, Sanchez is still not firing and Song had a below par game.  Alba did well after his layoff and he’ll be key as Adriano recovers.  Sevilla was well organized and confident, taking the fantastic result against Real Madrid and building on it.  When Negredo skinned Song early in the second half and chipped Valdes, I admit my head sunk.  My pessimistic nature took over and I saw three dropped points at the Sanchez Pizjuan with El Clasico looming.  Eight points down to two in a matter of moments.

All credit to Sevilla.  As they had done a couple of rounds ago against Los Blancos, they sat in, absorbed the pressure and then attacked Barca, with Navas eventually finding the ball.  I thought Rakitic had a great game, covering tons of ground and making good passes.  Palop was in fine form as yet another goalkeeper rose to the occasion.

But then . . . But then what?  The referee?  Substitutions?  Fatigue?  All of the above?  Cesc channeled his inner Rivaldo to get Medel sent off.  There’s no doubt about that.  From there Sevilla still almost held on but Barca would not be denied as Fabregas scored his second and then Villa won the match in the dying moments.

FCB have a 100% record yet there is a sense that they are paper champions.  Between the injuries, form that has been less than spectacular, a tough midweek game against Benfica and Real’s need to win, this weekend’s match against could go very wrong.  Right now I would take a draw.  Maintain the gap, get players back, make it to the winter break with a five to six point lead.  We’ll see Sunday.

Kxevin was recovering from the match as well in his post for Barcelona Football Blog.  Thrilled with the three points, he saw a team full of hunger, who refused to lose a match despite the deficit.  He was also pleased that others stepped up to score the goals, with Messi the provider rather than the savior.  His player ratings were interesting as well, with poor marks given to Alves, Messi and Sanchez, but he was pleased with Busquets, Alba and the manager, who made the right substitutions to get the team back into the match and win, rather than settle for a draw.

Sid Lowe found the “comeback of champions” breathless as the pace and intensity game never dropped.  Praise was given to Michel’s Sevilla but in the end Barca won the day and maintained their lead over Real Madrid.  (Yes I know that Atleti are only two points behind, but they have to prove that they can go the distance.)  Doctor Sid produced a stat during his column: Half of their 24 goals this season have arrived in the last 15 minutes, after he has made substitutions.  Lack of fitness and squad depth were big factors in last season’s shortcomings, and hopefully Tito is turning the corner.

Chalk on the Boots put together a very insightful post after the match, identifying several key items for both teams.  He identified Sevilla’s organization and willingness to defend resolutely and then attack with intelligence, although he does worry about fatigue at the end of matches for Trochowski and Rakitic, who do a lot of running.  He commended Michel for his lineup and substitutions and felt that Los Rojiblancos would have gotten at least a draw had Medel not been sent off.  As for FCB, he focused on Messi’s move to a false 10 rather than a false.  This was also mentioned by Kxevin at Barcelona Football Blog.  Chalk expressed it as follows:

Messi moves deeper now into a classic No10 position on the pitch and is more or less laterally aligned with the most advanced of Barcelona’s midfielders. Last night this was Cesc. With Xavi operating slightly deeper alongside Busquets, it’s not unusual to see the two wide players being positioned furthest forward. In this respect, Barcelona often now resemble a loose 4-2-2-2.

While Barca dominated possession, their slow transition allowed Sevilla to recover their shape and clog the midfield.  Finally, he noted that the Blaugrana are trying more crosses (not favorable due to size and congestion of the penalty area) and more direct distribution from Valdes.

A fantastic post with lots of good info and things to consider.

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Articles and Podcasts

Phil Ball had a wonderful time at the Basque Derby as Real Sociedad ran out 2-0 winners.  His column examined the current issues and context of the neighboring clubs.  Real Sociedad are flying high at home with a group of young players that are raising eyebrows, led by Griezmann.  Didn’t realize he was French.  As for Bilbao, Llorente’s position is, in the words of John Terry, untenable.  A substitute these days for a club that is a shadow of the glorious team that ran out last year.  The result leaves Los Leones in 18th while the Txuri-urdin are up to 8th.

Tim Stannard looked ahead to El Clasico for Football 365, taking the view that rather than a battle of heavyweights in yet another game of the century, this match will be between “two sides trying to find their way in la Liga and suffering on-the-pitch problems in Barcelona’s case and all manner of trouble in the dressing room in Real Madrid’s with continued talk of rifts and Mourinho starting to lose his managerial mojo.”  Let the games begin.

On Sky Sports La Liga Extra, Jon Driscoll and Terry Gibson looked at Madrid’s result; FCB’s spirited comeback with the caveat that they are not in “full flight”; Atleti finding a way to win without Falcao; and praise given to Valladolid for their 6-1 thrashing.

It had been a while since I visited Atletico Fans.  I was able to read Martin’s post, which saw a solid performance from Los Colchoneros as they made Raul Garcia’s header stand up for all three points.  Besides Garcia, who is off to a great start this season, special mention was made of Courtois’ efforts between the sticks.  Despite another lackluster second half performance Atleti is in second place ahead of next week’s key clash against Malaga.  A win there, and they can put down a marker as the new third best team in Spain.

Morbo Minute–Season Review

I have been getting deeper and deeper into La Liga over the last couple of years.  This season I dedicated myself to following the league and writing a weekly recap, which I posted at this blog.  Also, El Centrocampista graciously allowed me to publish my thoughts at their site on occasion.  So I thought I would take a couple of minutes and run through some of the story lines that appealed to me from the recently completed season.

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It’s cliché to start with the Big Two but I have to.  What a season for Real Madrid.  Going into the season I felt that Los Merengues would win the league as a combination of Mourinho, drive from the players, and fatigue in the FCB camp would allow Los Blancos to reclaim the title.  I was proven right (for once) as Mourinho’s men had two minor wobbles in rolling to the title, but smashed the league goals record and gained vital points on the road which had been their shortcoming in the past.  As for the Blaugrana, they gave everything, but after almost five years of constant competition for club and country, when it came to find the extra gear, they were found wanting.  Pep has exited, handing the reigns over Tito Vilanova, and this off season will be crucial—preparation, adjustment to new manager, and possible signings—if FCB want to get back to the top.

One of my most ill advised posts was one I wrote about being Bored with Barcelona.  In late September, things were humming along as it looked like FCB was cruising towards another sextuple.  Having high entertainment standards and a low attention span caused me to write comments that were worthless the moment they hit the screen.  I have been properly chastised and look forward to next season’s challenge on all fronts, regardless of results.

Next, Valencia were a mixed bag.  Clearly first of the rest for the opening half of the season, 2012 proved a different proposition all together.  Poor league form saw them overhauled by the chasing pack before they righted themselves to finish third again despite another summer of player sales and financial constraints.  They also had a decent Europa League run, making the semis before being disposed of by Atleti.  In the end Emery left and now Pellegrino will have a go at trying to keep the club at its current level.

Malaga kept everyone guessing, as a poor start saw them well off the European places, but eventually Pellegrini got Los Boquerones firing on all cylinders.  They rose up to the table to get all the way to third before a couple of stumbles at the end caused them to finish fourth.  The squad still needs improvement, especially at the forward position but they have a solid core that will allow them to compete next year.

What can you say about Levante?  Los Granotes were probably THE story of 2011/12, a plucky side with the oldest back five ever in La Liga, a forward who couldn’t score for Sevilla but couldn’t stop finishing for his new team, and a team spirit that kept them fighting all the way to the end.  They eventually finished sixth and will participate in the Europa League next season.

Falcao was one of the best players outside the Big Two, with his goals firing Atleti to Europa League glory and keeping Los Rojiblancos alive in the race for Europe next season as they finished fifth, two points behind Malaga.  Who knows if he will be playing for Simeone next year as the third party that owns his registration may try to cash in on a phenomenal season.

Los Leones were another great story of the last season, with Bielsa creating a team that played scintillating football at times.  Their game against Barcelona at San Mames was one of the matches of the season and their destruction of Manchester United in the Europa League opened the eyes of the English media.  They had two great runs in the cup, making the finals of both the Europa League and the Copa del Rey, but success on multiple fronts exposed a thinness of squad that lead to poor form in La Liga, finishing tenth.

Osasuna don’t get a lot of pub, but their Jekyll and Hyde performances have to get a mention.  The finished with 54 points (13W 15D 10L), not too shabby, but their goal differential was -17.  Only five teams in the Primera were worse.  Their defense was water tight except when it wasn’t.  In five matches, they gave up 30 of their 61 goals against.  In the other 33 matches, they gave up less than a goal a game.  Sort that out.

Finally there was the battle at the bottom.  For most the season, Zaragoza and Gijonwere nailed on relegation candidates, having no chance at survival.  And then something happened, as both teams starting amassing points putting pressure on the teams ahead of them.  Racing became the new whipping boys and were resigned to Segunda football early in the summer.

Going in to the final day, five teams were involved in the relegation battle.  Villarreal had been sucked in to the relegation zone early in the season after selling Cazorla, a shaky defense and injuries to Rossi and Nilmar.  I kept waiting for them to go a run and pull themselves clear, but instead the Yellow Submarine remained within touching distance of the bottom three, eventually going down on the last day as they lost to Atleti and Rayo scored a last gasp goal against Granada to survive.  These were my thoughts on the dramatic last day of the La Liga season.

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During the season, here were the best games I saw:

*Valencia v FCB

Los Che gave the Champions all they could handle, taking advantage of a shaky defense to put the Blaugrana on the rack.  The Alba/Mathieu pairing was fantastic.

*Athletic Bilbao v FCB

In a rain soaked San Mames, a game of rare intensity, quality and grit occurred.  Los Leones twice led but were eventually pegged back in the waning moments.  A preview of the season for both sides.

*Valencia v Real Madrid

Here is where Real showed their title credentials.  Los Blancos traveled to the Mestalla, played an incredible match, equaled by the hosts and held on to for the victory after Los Che made it 2-3 and threw everything at them.

*Athletic Bilbao v Espanyol

A back and forth match that featured a fierce hit by Romaric and a couple of nice free kicks before a late, late equalizer by Albin for Espanyol.

*FCB v Real Madrid

The end.  For now.  Cristiano’s goal was of such quality that all anyone can do is stand and clap.  Mourinho’s broke the hoodoo in the finest way possible—winning at their opponent’s home, matching them in technical and physical terms, and staying away from the unsavory elements that had come before.

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To wrap up, I wanted to share  thoughts from some of the other writers and sites that I follow:

Sonja (@sopra1988) summed up the season for Inside Spanish Football, touching on the high notes: Messi’s goals, Real Madrid’s record breaking points and goals scored, Bilbao’s brave effort, Mallorca’s surprise finish, the departure of Kanoute from Sevilla, and the tense last moments in the relegation zone on the last day of season, to name a few.

Tim Stannard picked out five for the future in his Spanish Thing column for Football365.com: Courtois, de Marcos, Isco, Iñigo Martínez, and Varane.  I saw a lot of de Marcos and Isco this season so totally concur.

Andy May and Sid Lowe, along with several guest contributors, looked back at the 2011/12 La Liga season for Sky Sports La Liga Weekly.  The beginning of the pod focused on the Big Two—Barcelona’s failure to win in Spain or in Europe, Pep leaving and the future of the club and trying to put the team into context, as well as evaluating Real Madrid, who seem to be going from strength to strength and could start a cycle of their own.  They also discussed Atleti’s prospects for next season, whether they will kick on or go back as usual, before moving onto Athletic Bilbao, who were an attractive side, gaining supporters around Europe, but wondering if the can they hold on to players.  Finally there was a brief mention of the teams that battled it out at the bottom, with Sid reiterating that Lotina, who went down with the Yellow Submarine as he went down with Depor, had too negative of an approach to survive.

Finally, Heath Chesters shared his personal journey finding and following Granada up through the divisions of Spanish football.  He makes the case for teams like Granada, well run, financially stable and having strong away support as the model for the league rather than the overspending and snobbish super teams.  Great stuff.

Just wanted to thank a couple of sites that I followed all season:

A Different Liga

Inside Spanish Football

SpanishFootball.info

Atletico Fans

Villarreal USA

Athletic Bilbao Offside

Barcelona Football Blog

Total Barca

Real Madrid Football Blog

And I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sid Lowe, Graham Hunter and Phil Ball all season.

Plus, many thanks to Elisa at Forza Futbol for great content and retweets and conversations, and the guys at El Centrocampista for allowing me to have a bit part at their great site and engaging me on social media.

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